As my White Wolf Fian re-challenge I decided to attempt an antler comb based on an item for Birka. I had, years ago made an antler comb that was, in my opinion, horrible. It was also a huge learning tool in what NOT to do the next time I attempted to make a comb.
For those not in the SCA or from Ealdormere, the White Wolf Fian is an order where you become a member by taking on a project that is challenge and strives for the authentic research and reproduction of artifacts. When an individual completes their challenge and it is accepted by the Fian and the Queen you become a full member. For 3 years. Then you have to do it all over again. There is no rank or symbols for the order. We do have an unofficial motto of “blood, sweat, tears and panic water”.
You can read our charter and other information on the Fian here:
This is the comb I based mine on:
The material I made my comb from is red deer antler. I’m lucky enough to be located close to a red deer farm (who sells antler bits at the local farmers marker, cut into manageable sizes and labelled as dog chew toys). The rivets were made from copper wire, the original comb had iron rivets, metal working of a degree that I was not willing to taking on.
The rest of the comb was all work, I used only hand tools to shape the antler, a coping saw, knife, hand spoon bit, and files.
I also tested out a method of splitting a larger piece of antler that was to become the tooth plates. I used the saw to cut into the hard outer layer of antler and then an antler tine as a wedge that was hammered in to split it.
And it worked!
My side plates were made from pieces that were cut down the length of the antler when I purchased it. There was still a great deal of cleaning and shaping to do. This is an area where next time I will likely cut away sections of antler to get the shape I want. Also clearing off the spongey side of the antler with a chisel would be faster than cutting it away with a knife like I did with my comb.
This artifact that was on display at the Canadian Museum of History in We Call Them the Vikings, is what gave me the idea of cutting more to shape. It is an unfinished set of side comb plates.
I also shaped and cleaned up the tooth plates. My technique improved as I worked on them, the last plate was done in half the time the first one took. They still are totally finished in the picture below.
The side plates took the most time shaping, nearly all of it done with a knife. The line designs were done with a small file and a knife.
Using my spoon bit I then drilled the holes for the rivets.
Next time I make a comb I won’t be doing these in advance. I will be doing the rivet holes at the time of mounting the tooth plates to aid in lining things up better.
All polishing was done at this stage as well. I used wood ash trying it out with both wool and linen swatches. I liked the polish that was created by the ash/linen combination.
Photo backdrop provided by my cat.
I then did the rivet holes in the tooth plates. Finally, I assembled the comb! It was extremely nerve wracking at first to take something I had put so much work into and hit it with a hammer. And hit it repeatedly! But antler is extremely strong, given that male deer smash into each other to prove who is the toughest and the antler survives is a testament to that.
One at a time, the 4 tooth plates go in.
And I found I had misaligned one plate and mounted it too high, leaving an area where there is a “dent” along the spine of the comb. I’m really miffed about this error. I did however, keep the dust from cutting the teeth and hope to mix it with a glue (type to be yet determined) to fill in the area.
So the comb is now 1 piece! It needed some tidying up though, the plates needed to be trimmed along the spine and levelled at the top.
Even more anxiety inducing than beating the comb with a hammer was cutting the teeth. There are many extant combs with broken teeth and the possibility of wrecking the comb at this point is high. Once I got going with the process I had a mental image of some poor apprentice in a workshop endlessly practicing sawing teeth on blanks before ever being allowed to touch a comb at this stage of the process. And here I was with my second attempt and the first one really didn’t go that well.
I measured and marked where I wanted the teeth to be with a pencil (spaced 3mm apart). I then used a file to make guide notches for the start of the saw cut.
Some of the cutting went well, some didn’t. I had one area where I went crooked off the cut line and had to re-space the cuts for the rest of that tooth plate. I actually walked away from the project for a week at that point.
The last tooth plate on the far right is the section I was the most pleased with. As with other aspects of this comb, my technique improved as I progressed.
After the teeth were cut I used a knife to try and smooth and shape the teeth. They aren’t as even and lovely as on the comb which I was basing this on but in the end I do have a functional comb. As proven by Her Majesty Adrielle, in court, when She and the Fian accepted my challenge as complete.
Some of the sources I used:
Ambrosian, Kristina, Viking age combs, comb making and comb makers: in the light of finds from Birka and Ribe. Dept. of Archaeology, North-European, University of Stockholm, 1981
MacGregor, Arthur, Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. Croom Helm, 1985
Swedish History Museum – http://historiska.se/home/